Girls just wanted to have fun as least as far back as 1677 and the English Restoration, when playwright Aphra Behn wrote her comedy The Rover about a passel of adventuresome Neapolitan sisters and the handsome cavaliers with whom they flirt during a Carnival about thirty years previous. According to theater scholar and Impact Theater Artistic Director Melissa Hillman, this zesty, fast-paced work isn't produced outside of college theater programs very often because it's too firmly set in its time to be re-envisioned in any other. Which is a shame because not only is The Rover funny and relevant, it has sword-fighting and rampant bawdiness to recommend it. Fortunately, Woman's Will wasn't daunted by the prospect of all those period costumes, and the company has chosen The Rover as the free-in-the-parks play of its 2003 season. If you like free Shakespeare in the park, this is exactly the same sort of thing, except that Behn is much easier to follow and all the parts are played by women.
Behn, a staunch Royalist and closet Catholic who spied on the Dutch for Charles II, was the first Western woman to make her living as a writer. Although she wrote on many of the same themes as her male counterparts, her work was considered shocking by virtue of her gender. Which didn't stop her from writing, any more than public sentiment stopped her from speaking her mind or taking several lovers. One of her recurring themes, in fact, is that of prostitution in the larger sense -- selling what one holds dear in exchange for safety, security, or approval.
The rover of the title is Captain Willmore, a dashing cavalier who is joining his fellows for a few days of rest and recreation in Naples. "Love and mirth are my business here," Willmore says, and he means it; nothing in a skirt is safe when he makes landfall. He seeks "all the honey of matrimony and none of the sting," yet will find plenty of the latter in the lovely persons of Hellena and Angelica Bianca, young women destined for the nunnery and a famous courtesan respectively. Meanwhile Willmore's comrade Belville is secretly betrothed to Hellena's sister Florinda, but her zealously protective brother Don Pedro stands in the way. Third sister Valeria is the good-natured hell-raiser who comes up with the plan that the sisters should disguise themselves and sneak off to play ("Men are stark mad for wenches!" she enthuses); more cavaliers, a duke's son, a rich-voiced governess, and assorted merrymakers round out the cast.
And it's some cast, made up almost entirely of actors new to Woman's Will. Director Erin Merritt tapped the magnetic Rami Margron (the only WW regular) as loose cannon Willmore; it was an inspired choice, as Margron can buckle her swashes with the best of them. The chemistry between Margron and Bernadette Quattrone as Angelica is spot-on. It's exciting to see Quattrone in one of the most grown-up roles she's gotten in the East Bay, which she handles with assurance and elegiac nobility. There's a visually phenomenal moment where Angelica stands over a man who has wronged her in a scarlet dress and black cloak, two swords drawn against him.
In Behn's Carnival-inspired inversion, the prostitute is the most honor-bound character and the high-born sisters and their swains the most duplicitous. Hellena toys with Willmore; Willmore lies with perfect ease to every woman he meets; Belville's friends try to get him to pick up another wench and stop fixating so much on Florinda; Florinda herself, disguised as a Gypsy, tests him to see if he will stray. Even the sisters' brother and protector Don Pedro isn't above a little wenching once he's out of earshot of the family manse, a tendency that happily opens the story up to some dueling. The revelers swirl and skirmish, identities are mistaken, raunchy jokes are made, and eventually all (or most of) the women get what they most want -- whether it's a little fun, or a true love.
Meanwhile over at Contra Costa Civic Theatre, the slave Pseudolus doesn't want true love so much as he wants his freedom. But to get it, he needs to make sure that "lovers divided get coincided" despite their guardians' wishes. In this case, the lovers are his puppy dog of a master, young Hero, and the equally brainless courtesan Philia, who has inconveniently been sold to a powerful general who is scheduled to arrive any minute. Clever Pseudolus (Mike Nebeker) has to navigate goofy teenage boys in togas and sandals, two women (and a man) all wearing the same dress, the bitchy mistress of the house, and a pack of themed courtesans. Any show that features all this and a totally unexplained rubber chicken is clearly all about fun, and that's what CCCT delivers with their production of Stephen Sondheim's spoofy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
As Philia, Gina Marchitiello sings "All I am is lovely -- lovely is the only thing I can do," but that's not entirely true; the eight years this college sophomore has spent studying voice pay off beautifully here. Amongst the men, one of the nicest singing moments is the reprise of "Lovely" between Pseudolus and Hysterium; the latter's sustain at the end is a pleasant surprise. Otherwise the singing is all over the map, from lovely through adequate to inaudible and subpar in a few cases. At least the actors are singing to excellent live accompaniment directed by keyboardist Joanne Gabel. Not only does live music make the audience's overall experience more positive, but a tape can't adjust for the levels and pacing of the singers onstage.
What the show lacks in singing polish it makes up for in enthusiasm -- and scantily-dressed courtesans, not a single one of them as noble as the one in The Rover but all of them with a noteworthy gimmick. The funniest has to be Kerry Wininger as Vibrata, the tiger girl. She's lovely, she's wild and kinky, and if you have a problem with flies or mice she can take care of that too. Audiences who caught last year's Grease (and Babes in Arms at the Willows) know that Wininger steals every show she's in, and this one is no exception. Which is not to dismiss either Tintinabula (Sarah Winter) or Panacea (Darcy Alban) and their excellent dancing, but when it comes to silly courtesan tricks, who wouldn't want one who can be controlled with a little bit of string dangled the right way? Their household is rounded out by procurer Marcus Lycus (Mick Renner), who has a wonderful voice for his role, especially when he manages to squeeze an extra four or five syllables into the word "virgin."
Pseudolus' reluctant partner in crime is Slave-in-Chief Hysterium, left in charge of the household when Hero's parents leave on a trip. Hysterium (David Irving) is aptly named; staying calm is a monumental effort of will for the poor man. Nebeker and Irving play well off each other, the former calm and slick, the latter a ball of nerves until the second act when things start to turn, and he can ask questions like "Why are we crying over a dead body snatcher?"
Speaking of whom, there's a spoiler coming up if you haven't seen Forum before. In the post-show discussion that followed Sunday's The Rover, Erin Merritt made a salient point about putting men in drag for cheap laughs. She noted that, too often, having a male character dress as a woman is an easy way of indicating that he has lost status. This is very different from drag that empowers the performer (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a good example), and it's very common -- I saw three examples in the course of last week. Which is why David Irving's Hysterium is so interesting in Forum. Although he does show up in drag in the second act, against his will and thus reduced as a man, he plays with it and ultimately dignifies it (not to mention getting a date out of it). Which is probably the only dignified thing about light, cheery Forum, which is otherwise -- as the song says -- all about "tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight."
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